Perhaps I am too eager to see an old friend to do the homework on a map. I rush out, drive headlong in what I think is the right direction, only to find myself hopelessly lost. Then I call the friend, plead for help, gather new guidance and reorient myself. More often, I reach the place all right, but on my return, as my guards are down, I suddenly find myself in a strange location, clearly nowhere near my home.
Decades later I still remember the panic I experienced as a child the day we moved into a beautiful apartment in a massive building. I explored the building at length, then came out to see its different facets, and then could not remember how to get back to the apartment. I was nearly in tears.
Getting lost can of course cost more than time, gasoline and tears. Seven years ago, Tom Mahood, a physicist, found the remains of a German couple and their small children, whose abandoned car in Anvil Canyon in California had aroused a cop’s concern fifteen years earlier. Mahood worked back from their maps that they had misread the symbols, lost their way and perished in the scorching desert heat.
Why do we make such terrible mistakes and lose our way?
Of course, we have many more reasons for losing our way. People today are not just going from a village to another village or from a village to the neighboring city. They are taking fast-moving cars, trains and planes to far-flung cities and countries. It requires us to keep a far bigger map in mind, a map that also changes far more rapidly than in earlier centuries. Many major businesses are global; for work, pleasure, medical treatment and academic research, travel is unremittingly international; and the pressure on world travelers often excludes the possibility of familiarity. Even if you live and work in the same city – a growing rarity these days – the chances are you vary your routes far more than your father or grandfather ever did.
The other bad news is that we, humans, are naturally deficient in knowing the direction compared to animals. If we are blindfolded or disoriented, a lot of evidence suggests we just go round and round. In contrast, migratory animals go thousands of miles without a mistake. Migratory birds use an internal magnetic compass or a sonar system to create a detailed mental map. The African desert ant can go for foraging, without getting lost, on long, crooked routes 20,000 times its body length, the equivalent of a human marathon. Our minds work differently. We schematize and simplify space – straightening curves into straight lines, aligning landmarks that are unaligned – and create a false mental map, prompting our steps in the wrong direction.
More importantly, we can train our minds. In fact, there is some evidence that the more we depend on widgets, the less our minds function to keep us on the right track. Often we get lost because we have not paid enough attention to a place before leaving it or we have seen it from only one angle. It is wise to take a good look at the place, perhaps from more than one angle. Our ability to recall improves with every effort. Researchers found that London cab drivers, who must remember hundreds of street names to pass the license test, develop a bigger hippocampus, the part of the brain where one stores such information. When we move to a new city, it helps to pore over the map and get a broad idea of its regions imprinted on our mind.
I hate the idea of stuffing my mind with maps. I guess I will still have to take a crack at it if I don’t want to get lost again. Meanwhile, if anyone knows how to locate a quaint café next to a laundry not far from a metro stop, will you please let me know?